It’s possible that Australia soon will have a new Prime Minister. Tony Abbott, seriously wounded by the recent spill, struggles to survive. Every move he makes, every breath he takes, is scrutinised by those eagerly awaiting the next stumble, the next bad ‘captain’s call’ that can bring on another spill, this time with a candidate to sweep Abbott away.
In the mad panic sweeping Liberal MPs this month, venerable chief whip Philip Ruddock’s dismissal, and Abbott’s seeking clemency for convicted drug-runners by reminding Indonesia that in times of crisis Australia is a very good neighbour indeed, are used against him. Notably, Abbott’s deputy Julie Bishop avoided backing him on the first and, on the second, reports that Bishop had to phone her Indonesian counterpart to ‘clarify’ Abbott’s comments conveniently found their way into Fairfax newspapers.
Then there are the conservative journos and commentators – the ‘Jokers to the Right’ as I dubbed them in these pages last year – who wail that if only Abbott embraced a libertarian-conservative economic and free-speech agenda and, especially, if he abolished that awful 18C, all would be well. Conservative academic James Allan comes to mind. Here in the Speccie, he excoriated me for daring to suggest conservatives support team Abbott however poorly it’s playing. His view is it’s more important to correct the team’s errors than actually win the match, forgetting the only place for ideological purity is perpetual Opposition.
Indeed, doyen commentators on the Right, including Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Jeff Kennett and Peter Costello, helped trigger the spill motion by giving Abbott both barrels when he knighted Prince Philip on Australia Day. Already traumatised by Campbell Newman’s Alan Jones-fuelled bloodbath, the PM being condemned by marquee conservative names created panic among Liberal MPs. Salivating journalists certainly fanned the bushfire of discontent, but it was the Corporal Joneses in the party room who did the damage, having learned nothing from watching Labor immolate itself in the Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard death match of 2010-13.
For months Abbott and his office have been under sustained attack from influential commentators writing for his former employer, the Australian. Contributing editor Peter van Onselen, once hosted by Abbott in his ministerial office, and Niki Savva, a former adviser to Costello, have led the charge. Savva’s columns, with plenty of juicy insider leaks, give good copy to Abbott-haters, and PVO’s Australian and Sky News commentaries happily stoke the leadership fires.
But the Australian’s coordinated and increasingly personal attack against Abbott, and especially his fearsome chief of staff Peta Credlin, reached a nadir in publishing sensational articles by John Lyons detailing severe dysfunction in the PM’s office. They included an extraordinary claim that Abbott had asked defence chiefs whether an Australian ground forces should ‘invade’ Iraq, unsupported by Western allies, to fight Islamic State’s terrorist barbarism. Naturally Lyons’s story stole the headlines, despite the PM’s denial. That Lyons depended on unnamed sources – ‘one military official’, ‘one cabinet minister’s staff member’, ‘one Liberal powerbroker’ (you get the idea) – was incidental. ‘I can’t think of too many journalists I respect more than John Lyons’, PVO tweeted. Abbott’s dilemma now is that however inaccurate Lyons’s yarn, however unreliable and malicious his sources, the centre-right’s newspaper of record has printed it as fact.
When it comes to policy and political management, the Abbott government created its own misery. Clearly, its governance is chaotic, there are internal morale issues, and last year it forgot the basic political lesson of pursuing unpopular policy change – no surprises and explain, explain, explain. The government needs to, as the old song goes, pick itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again. Abbott should find overseas postings for underperforming ministers and, however reluctantly, distractions like Credlin, to help right a badly listing ship.
But Abbott doesn’t deserve to be ejected, nor destroyed by ‘friendly’ fire from the Right. Do those wanting to do Abbott in seriously want the bomber-jacketed darling of the Q&A set, Malcolm Turnbull – whose ETS crusade split his party and whose Godwin Grech ‘Utegate’ scandal was a judgment jaw-dropper against which Prince Philip’s knighthood is nothing – to return? Do frontbenchers who served under Turnbull, and resigned rather than follow him to oblivion, really want him back? And have they reminded newer MPs how poorly Turnbull as leader treated his colleagues and that, had not Abbott prevailed, Rudd could still have been prime minister today? For that’s where things were going in late 2009.
If they, too, don’t want this result, the Right’s cackling Mesdames Defarge should stop knitting and give the best conservative hope, Abbott, opportunity to recover. Savva, Albrechtsen, van Onselen et al should also take note that they don’t speak for most rank-and-file Liberals who still prefer a flawed PM with values striving to do right, however badly, than preening but undeclared candidates, and leaking supporters, who offer no alternative visions of their own. So instead of falling over themselves to do Abbott in, conservative opinion leaders should contemplate what happens if they succeed. It’s not just giving Bill Shorten the prime ministership by default. Can the Coalition survive a return to the chaos of 2008-09, when God and his angels slept through Turnbull’s disastrous leadership?
Simply changing salesmen, in panicked reaction to opinion polls, changes nothing for the Government, nor for the Liberal party. Constructive criticism of Abbott on policy and governance is one thing: but pointlessly devouring one’s own is absolutely another. For conservative commentators hell-bent on destroying Tony Abbott there is only one message: be careful what you wish for.
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